Press freedom under systematic attack

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By DANILO ARAÑA ARAO

Remember May 5, 2020. On that day, ABS-CBN was forced to cease its operations in what media organizations label as the biggest attack on press freedom under the Duterte administration.

As if this was not enough, it was also on this day Cornelio Pepino, a radio journalist based in Dumaguete City, was killed instantly after being shot five times while on his way home after working his shift at dyMD Energy FM 93.7.

Both happened two days after the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.

To say that this day witnessed the most serious assault on press freedom is to realize how the Duterte administration has consistently and systematically attacked the media even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from ABS-CBN, Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer were also at the receiving end of Duterte’s tirades. The three news media organizations hold the “distinction” of being mentioned at Duterte’s state of the nation address (SONA) in 2017, accusing them of being biased and raising questions about their ownership.

Duterte has also cursed journalists and news media organizations critical of his policies. His misogyny is further manifested by catcalling female reporters during official functions. He and his apologists, of course, are quick to dismiss such issues, even to the point of claiming that cursing and catcalling are normal among those who live in Visayas and Mindanao. Even a senator who is supposed to champion women’s rights once remarked that Duterte’s alleged sexism is just locker room talk and that “boys will be boys.”

Lest we forget, alternative news media organizations and some media groups have been victims of red-baiting and police-military surveillance. Some of their journalists have also been arrested and detained for just simply doing their jobs.

And then there is that infamous “Oust Duterte matrix” published in 2019 by a low-circulation, pro-administration broadsheet and confirmed by Malacañan Palace. This “matrix” identified certain journalists and lawyers of being involved in a conspiracy to oust Duterte. (Disclosure: I was included in this “matrix” and I have publicly denied the accusation.)

Of course, there are hundreds of cases of media killings. While different methodologies and timeframe show varying statistics from national and international monitoring groups, it cannot be denied that the data are alarming. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), for example, says that more than 180 journalists and media workers have been killed since 1986 when the dictator was ousted and democratic institutions were supposed to have been restored.

It is in this context that we have to analyze what ABS-CBN is going through. Duterte claims to be completely neutral now but he repeatedly threatened to block the renewal of the franchise in the recent past. At one point, he even said that if ABS-CBN supports the government’s push for federalism, he was willing to settle.

That various government officials are now blaming each other for the closure of ABS-CBN is a vain attempt to absolve the President of any wrongdoing. Blind support for Duterte has indeed reached new heights as they are willing to stake whatever is left of their reputation even if they get projected as barefaced liars.

For example, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) once said in a congressional hearing that it can grant a provisional authority for ABS-CBN to temporarily operate while its franchise is still pending before Congress. However, it issued a cease and desist order after being pressured by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG). Now the OSG is blaming the House of Representative (HOR) for sitting on the pending ABS-CBN franchise bills. And then the House Speaker blames the NTC, while some senior HOR members are blaming him and then the new HOR members are blaming their senior counterparts.

The plan of the House of Representatives and the Senate to give ABS-CBN a five-month provisional franchise should be exposed as both a face-saving measure and a control mechanism. On one hand, it gives the impression that congressional leaders who sat on the pending franchise bills before the lockdown are now trying to get the network back on air. On the other hand, it keeps the network on a short and tight leash, sending a chilling message that if they do not toe the line in the next five months, they may not get a 25-year franchise renewal.

Even at the risk of stating the obvious, nowhere in this “blame game” is Duterte mentioned by the powers-that-be, except when there are claims as to his complete neutrality.

Let us stress two important points: Press freedom is under serious attack. And Duterte is behind it.

The chilling effect of the forced closure of ABS-CBN is clear. If it can happen to a leading network, then it can also happen to other news media organizations or even ordinary people. Bloggers, vloggers and social media users would be discouraged from speaking out lest they incur the ire of the powers-that-be. Right now, Sec. 6 of the recently passed Bayanihan to Heal as One Act is being used as a basis for harassing and intimidating ordinary people, even to the point of initially wanting to have an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) deported for critical social media posts.

One can counter-argue that press freedom is still alive as there are thousands of news media organizations nationwide. Then again, what kind of information will we get as a result of the chilling effect?

Unlike in other countries like Thailand, our public information system is very much focused on government propaganda. People’s Television Network (PTV) and the Philippine News Agency (PNA), for example, regurgitate “praise” releases that do not measure up to the highest normative standards of journalism. In other words, government media can never be a credible source of information given its one-sided, pro-government slant.

As far as privately-owned media are concerned, we notice that some networks are not anymore as critical as they used to be. Dubious sources of information are being used to justify the closure of ABS-CBN (e.g., a certain cable TV operator with a clear conflict of interest not only in terms of nature of business but also in terms of familial connection).

The low quality (or even outright lack) of journalism could be evident most especially if Duterte would have his way. We now have a militarized bureaucracy with the entry of former military officials in what should be civilian-led government agencies. We might end up with a militarized way of life as increased police and military presence seems to be part of the post-pandemic “new normal.”

When press freedom dies, relevant information dies as well. The people are at the losing end when they are not properly enlightened, educated and informed.

Press freedom is said to be a cornerstone in a democracy. With the demise of press freedom, there is now a severely damaged and contaminated press where there is a likelihood of increased harassment and intimidation, not to mention self-censorship and pro-government gatekeeping.

The people have no other choice but to push back and to fight back. The line should be clearly drawn and sharpened, between the movers of culture of resistance on one side and the perpetrators of culture of impunity on the other.

As long as the country continues to be governed by a ruler with Marcosian ambitions, it is everyone’s task to keep the torch of press freedom burning.

Prof. Danilo Arao is a faculty member at the UP College of Mass Communication and the associate editor of Bulatlat.com

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